Following Jesus

Jesus admonished his disciples - If anyone wishes to come after me, “Let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me!” This was more than metaphorical and certainly not hyperbolic language. He declared this when he was on his final journey to Jerusalem where he would demonstrate just what it meant to “take up the cross,” and the historical context shows just how challenging his words were.

At Caesarea Philippi, he began to tell his disciples that he “MUST go to Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed and raised up the third day.” Here, the Greek term translated as “must” represents the verb dei, meaning, “it is necessary, ought, needful, obligatory, IT MUST HAPPEN.”

Cross under clouds - Photo by Luke Mollet on Unsplash
[Photo by Luke Mollet on Unsplash]

This usage points to his messianic mission. He was under
divine compulsion to walk into a situation that he knew would result in his death - (Matthew 16:21-25).

To this, Peter took great exception. The very idea of a suffering Messiah was contrary to popular expectations. No devout Jew would tolerate even the suggestion that the King of Israel might suffer death at the hands of Israel’s greatest enemy, Rome, or that the priestly authorities would be complicit in the plot to murder the Messiah.

Recognizing Satan’s hand in Peter’s words, Jesus rebuked him. “Get behind me, Satan!” The name “Satan” is derived from the Hebrew word for “adversary.” The Devil was using Peter to thwart Jesus from following the path laid out for him by his Father.

As he would show at Gethsemane, death by crucifixion was not what Jesus desired, though, in the end, he submitted to it and thus “denied himself,” knowing it was the will of God for him to die for others (“Not my will, but yours be done!”). It was at this very point that the Devil attempted to steer him away from his mission, that Jesus declared to the disciples.

An incorrect understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah would produce misunderstandings of what is required to be his disciple.

Just as God called His Son to self-denial and suffering, so the Messiah exhorted his disciples to do likewise. The call to take up the Cross and follow him applies to every disciple.

This does not mean every disciple will be persecuted or must suffer martyrdom. However, his use of the Roman cross to illustrate how one follows him would certainly have shocked his first-century audience where crucifixion was a repugnant image of suffering and shame.


Nothing symbolized the power of Rome and its oppression of the Jewish nation more than crucifixion. Yet rather than use his power and fleeting popularity to overthrow Rome and liberate Israel, Jesus laid down his life for his friends and enemies alike.

Execution by crucifixion was a form of capital punishment inflicted on the lower classes, especially rebellious slaves. Romans were so horrified by it that by law citizens were exempt from crucifixion (Roman citizens guilty of capital crimes were beheaded). To follow Jesus in THAT WAY meant submitting to something that was offensive to Jewish sensibilities and feared and despised by the Gentile world.

In the Greek text of the passage in Matthew, Jesus uses the present tense form of the verb translated as “follow” to stress an ongoing action. This was not just a call to pick up the cross once but to do so repeatedly. The version of his words in Luke stresses the point by adding the word “daily” – (Luke 9:23).

The image of a disciple taking up the cross would strike a grim chord with his disciples, even more so since the Roman practice was to force the condemned man to carry the same cross on which he was to be hung to the place of execution.

Despite his explanation and the strong rebuke of Peter, the disciples still did not grasp what following him would entail. Later, after the “sons of Zebedee” asked to sit on either side of Jesus “When you come in your Kingdom,” he responded, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?

Instinctively, John and James replied, “Yes! No problem. We are well able. Bring it on!” However, they had no idea what he was asking of them:

  • You know that the rulers of nations dominate them, and their great ones tyrannize them. But it will not be so among you. Whoever would become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever would be first among you shall be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus used his impending death to illustrate the point. The Greek term translated as “servant” in the preceding passage referred to household servants who waited on tables, a lowly position most often assigned to a slave, and the Greek noun translated as “slave” meant exactly that – “SLAVE.”

Hence, the Messiah of Israel was summoning his followers to serve others in ways viewed by the world as menial and humiliating. Only in this way could they become “great” in his Kingdom.

His description of the “Son of Man” who gave his life as a “ransom for many” echoes words in the Book of Isaiah that describe the “Servant of Yahweh” who suffered for his people - “Because he poured out his soul unto death and was numbered with the transgressors, yet he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” – (Isaiah 53:12).

Storm over beach - Photo by Anthony Cantin on Unsplash
[Photo by Anthony Cantin on Unsplash]

To follow
Jesus necessitates humility, self-denial, and self-sacrificial service to others. For his disciple, this is not optional. As Jesus warned, the man who “does not take his cross and follow me, is not worthy of me. He that finds his life shall lose it, but he that loses his life for my sake shall find it.

Thus, to follow Jesus of Nazareth necessitates living cruciform lives, both individual disciples, and collectively, his Assembly.

  • Ransom for Many - (His disciple is called to engage in self-sacrificial service for others just as Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many – Mark 10:35-45)
  • Perfected Disciples - (Mercy and love are defining characteristics of his disciples and reflect the true nature of his Father – Matthew 5:43-48)
  • Suffering for Him - (To follow Jesus requires the willingness to suffer for his sake, and enduring persecution is the highest honor imaginable in his Kingdom)



Salvation for the Nations

His Name is Jesus